Business Maverick


Sasbo’s bank strike PR coup: How will the union use it?

Sasbo’s bank strike PR coup: How will the union use it?
What Sasbo has achieved is to draw nationwide attention to the fact that automation (call it 4IR if you will), is killing jobs. And will continue to do so, says the writer. (Photo: AdobeStock)

The bank strike that wasn’t, was a brilliant public relations exercise. While the strike has been prohibited, the entire country is talking about it. The protagonists may go back to the negotiating table. The question is — will the union make ‘demands’ or will it propose solutions that work for everyone, given the current reality?

The right to strike is enshrined in the South African Constitution. It is this right, more than any other, that gives workers a voice and the power to be heard. Because let’s face it, they are often not heard.

Let’s also agree that the trade union movement, which played a powerful role in asserting worker rights and freeing SA from the grip of apartheid, is not covering itself in glory. The high levels of violence, intimidation and destruction of property that seem to accompany strikes today speak not of a glorious movement, but one that is adrift, unsure of its role and, in the face of declining membership, increasingly desperate.

In Japan, striking bus drivers and conductors go to work, but simply “forget” to charge customers for their ride. In Germany recently, pilots went on strike in small groups and over several days — never enough to bring the entire airline to a halt, but enough to inconvenience management. At no point was the company harmed — and workers did not forfeit days and weeks of their labour (and pay). But they made their point.

The strike planned by Sasbo has a similar feel. Ample warning was given; the union’s general secretary Joe Kokela talked a good game — fill up with petrol in advance and ensure salaries are paid because we are going to shut down the economy.

It is quite likely that the union leadership knew that relying on a section 77 notice (the section of Labour Relations Act that promotes the socio-economic rights of workers) issued by Nedlac in 2017, was the equivalent of walking on thin ice and if challenged in court, would not stand up.

It didn’t. But it didn’t matter because every South African, from the gogo in Grahamstown to the student in Stellenbosch, knows about the bank strike. They also know banks have been retrenching workers as jobs have been automated. It is a story that everyone can relate to.

The fact that the strike would have had almost no impact on people’s daily lives, or on financial flows in the economy, is irrelevant. Banking systems are so automated these days that most South Africans could have gone about their daily business without noticing that the branch was closed and the ATM not functioning.

What Sasbo has achieved is to draw nationwide attention to the fact that automation (call it 4IR if you will), is killing jobs. And will continue to do so.

What it also appears to have achieved is that it has the attention of management, which says that it is willing to go to the negotiating table.

Kaizer Moyane, the convenor of Business Unity SA at Nedlac, says the judge’s decision [to prohibit the strike] is an opportunity for Cosatu and Sasbo to engage in further dialogue at Nedlac before resorting to the “last resort” of a strike.

Similarly, Sasbo’s Kokela also appeared to suggest that the unions will go back to Nedlac. After the judgment was delivered he noted that “Nedlac is a platform for social dialogue and we expect all stakeholders to play their part”.

It’s what they do at the negotiating table that counts.

While trade unions have been good at arguing for better salaries and working conditions, their ability to lead in an environment of rapid workplace change and to propose new and out-of-the-box solutions appears to be lacking.

The reality, as unpalatable as it may be, is that banks are digitising. Not because management wants to get rid of staff, but because customers demand it — and if they don’t change the newcomers will have their lunch. And because it makes banking cheaper and more accessible to everybody.

Of all South Africa’s vulnerable workers, bank employees are decently educated, eloquent and presentable. They are well placed to be re-skilled.

If I was a union leader I’d be negotiating with employers to provide for new skills for my members. Not striking for a fight that cannot be won.

And, while we are talking about this, trade union leaders in the retail sector should be doing the same thing because this is not just a conundrum for the banks to deal with — automation is heading for retail too. BM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.